ECISD trustees vote to join suit against TEA

The Ector County ISD Board of Trustees in a special meeting Tuesday voted 6-1 to join litigation against the Texas Education Agency challenging lack of transparency in calculation of school district accountability ratings.

Schools are graded on an A-F system, but this year it was anticipated that the grades would be lower even if performance on the STAAR test and other measurements was better than last year.

Trustee Delma Abalos made the motion and board member Dawn Miller seconded. Trustee Robert Thayer voted against it.

Superintendent Scott Muri said the action the board took is to join an intervening group of school districts across the state that will be coming together to look at TEA and their release of the accountability system.

Seven school districts, including Fort Stockton and Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISDs, have filed a suit against TEA and Commissioner Mike Morath over the accountability system.

ECISD is joining a group of intervening districts across the state, Muri said.

Muri said the district was not given the rules in advance. They started the school year not knowing how they would be held accountable by the state.

There are 1,200 districts in Texas, he said.

“That’s an unfair advantage. The law requires that the agency release that information in advance so the school systems are aware of the accountability rules before the school year ever starts. That did not happen last year. In fact, we’re still waiting on some of the rules to be released and it’s the year 2023-2024,” Muri added.

The rules are still “at play” so the districts have not received the rules yet and the grades are due to be released in a few weeks.

He added that they want to make sure students and staff members are not harmed. He said they first want a temporary injunction to stop the release of the grades and let the ’22-23 school year and those scores to be a transition year.

“Let’s not apply the consequences, if you will, of the state accountability system using the A-F system last year. We’re continuously being made aware of the new rules, so don’t apply those rules to a school year that’s already passed. Give us one year to transition into this and then apply those rules. …,” Muri said.

Last year, they expected to get the new rules, but never got them. As bits and pieces were released, they began to realize the significance of these data.

This past year, they were very proud of ECISD’s college, career, military readiness score of 65. They met the goal the board established for ECISD and they were five points above an A.

“Then we suddenly realized during the middle of the year last year that the new A rating was an 88. That was really shocking for us. We thought we were doing really well and suddenly our 65 is a D. We went from an A to a D in just that singular area. So that type of realization continues to happen in other areas. Growth is the latest. The way that the state calculated student academic growth last year is very different in this new accountability system,” Muri said.

The lawsuit from the seven districts says they fear enrollment will be negatively impacted by the new ratings. Enrollment plays a big factor in state funding.

Muri said he’s not as concerned with that. But he thinks that type of harm will affect different types of districts in Texas.

“I think each district could be harmed in a different way. But primarily it is the students that we serve today. A great teacher wants to know his or her students before the year begins so that you know how to prepare. We didn’t have that information. We didn’t know the rules …,” Muri said.

He added that they don’t know how to prepare for what their schools may need because they don’t have the necessary information that’s necessary to organize themselves.

ECISD is using the law firm of Thompson Horton.

The original lawsuit is adding more districts and there is a separate group of intervenors and that’s what ECISD is joining.

Muri said the district and board believe in high standards and accountability.

“We want to have high standards for our students and we want to have high standards for the employees, those teachers and administrators and team members that serve those individuals,” Muri said.

Second, Muri said, they believe in accountability and holding people accountable to very high standards.

“We ourselves want to be held accountable at the system level to the rules that are created by the state of Texas. But it’s really my third point that I think is the essence of tonight. We want to know the rules of the game before we play the game, and in this case, the agency did not release the rules to the 22-23 accountability system in time for us to make needed adjustments,” Muri said.

He added that the district and others have been harmed.

“This particular piece of litigation allows us to let the agency know that we feel harmed by the lack of transparency that exists between what the agency created and the work that we have to do to support this at the local level. On behalf of staff and students in this community, thank you for this decision,” Muri said.

He said the decision to join the intervenors was made in support of students and staff members.

“In looking at early data, the group of students that were most heavily affected in a negative way by what we’re seeing are students of poverty. Sixty-seven (67) percent of our students live in poverty and so the majority of our kids are going to be negatively affected by this new system and that’s unfair for the students that we serve,” Muri said.

“Again, we support higher standards and want that, but we must do this in a way that is healthy for the students, healthy for our schools, our staff members and the system as a whole,” he added.

Thayer said he voted against moving ahead with legal action because he thinks the district should focus on accountability, how great the school district is “and it is.”

“I’m really proud of our teachers and Dr. Muri and his leadership. I want to focus on that and I want to focus on the school bond; getting our bond across the finish line. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that and so I want that to be our primary focus as a district,” Thayer said.

He acknowledged that TEA did not do a good job of communicating the rules.

“That’s true. Our schools need a bond. Our kids need a bond. Our teachers need what this bond provides. We’ve got a great cabinet here and they need that bond to pass. I want our voters who are considering this bond as they roll out the campaign to see we are working hard to get our schools up on the safety levels and get the teachers and our staff exactly what they need. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that,” Thayer added.